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Thinking about Child Caring Design in Food Education

Although the Japanese diet today is rich in variety and nutrition, children still have very unbalanced diets. Those of us who were born in the first decade of the Showa period (1926-1935) had very poor diets and remember going hungry at times, but everything we ate was home cooking and meals were enjoyable.

At that time, we could never have imagined all the dishes prepared by famous restaurants that are now sold in the food sections of department stores. Just about the only cooked food that we bought were pork cutlets and croquettes from the butcher shop, and that was only on special occasions. My mother bought a pork cutlet and special croquette (with extra ground meat) to celebrate my winning third place for the first time in a race in elementary school. I can still remember the smell as I waited while the butcher deep fried them in oil.

When I think of home cooking, I am reminded of butter fried potatoes. I liked potatoes and my mother often made them for me. At the time, butter was a luxury, and my mother, concerned about nutrition, used to add a little oil, but the taste was something very special. Grilled salmon was a regular feature in my lunchbox. My mother used to pile the rice high in my lunchbox and then place one slice of grilled salmon on top and then shut the lid tight. Even now I can remember the aroma of the grilled salmon when I opened my lunchbox and the taste of rice that had absorbed the salt and salmon flavor. In winter, we placed our lunchboxes around the heater in the classroom so lunch was always warm. It always smelled and tasted so good.

Nowadays thinking about this from the point of view of food education, despite our poor diets, the constant presence of the mother seems to have been significant. At dinnertime at home, families usually ate together around a small low table. No one ate alone. We were taught to say "itadakimasu" before eating to show our gratitude to the farmers who had grown the rice and vegetables and to the living things that had been cooked. My father was a devout Buddhist so I remember him offering a prayer at the altar before each meal. It was also a religious education for me. Food education is part of what children learned from their parents at home.

The Basic Food Education Law was enacted in June 2005 as part of a progressive drive to correct the poor dietary habits of children. Many people have now begun to work on improving children's eating habits and nutrition. But how do we make these improvements? That is a difficult question. We all know that we cannot use old values in thinking about food education today. The perspective of Child Science, however, tells us that we have to address food education in terms of child caring design. This means being focusing on children's eating habits, bringing researchers and professionals together in dialogue, analyzing problems from interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and comprehensive views to consider designs that take the child's point of view into consideration.

What are the current problems related to food and children today? As a pediatrician, I am first disturbed by the problem of the obesity due to poor eating habits. This leads to the onset of diabetes at an increasingly younger age and an increased risk for developing diabetes. Another disturbing phenomenon is thinness and anorexia often found in pubescent girls. Skipping meals and an unbalanced diet are aspects of the home environment that are quite possibly linked to juvenile delinquency and violence. Abuse can also manifest itself in poor appetite and binge eating disorders. Now that children no longer have a place where they can be comfortable, eating alone has become a major problem. Many of these children have lost the joy of eating and of life itself.

Food education is often a matter of knowing better, but not being able to change one's habits. Adults have to teach children how to make good decisions on their own. We need to research how we can help children maintain the good habits they learn in food education and then teach them how to do it.

Lunch at nursery school, kindergarten, and school and cooking by children all play a large role in food education. With some creative intervention, food education can become multi-faceted and fun. It can start with teaching the different tastes of food and include food culture. In junior high school, students should learn how to count energy consumption of diabetic meals to know the proper amount of food to eat. Food education can be made a part of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics classes. In fact, food education is an excellent example of the type of comprehensive study that schools are urged to offer outside the usual curriculum.

More than half the parents today lack proper knowledge of meals and meal preparation. At this point, it seems impossible to improve children's eating habits by teaching the parents first. In that sense, school lunch and cooking classes are important and should be given a more significant role. What should children be taught during lunch and cooking classes? This curriculum should be based on an application of Child Caring Design to food education. Eating is a natural human act that starts with taste, smell, appetite and chewing; we have to start with the basics of this mechanism.
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